Let Our People Tweet!

In a recent interview, Barack Obama made the following observation regarding the promise—and pitfalls—associated with the rapid growth of the use of social media in our hyper-politicized age: “The question has to do with how do we harness this technology in a way that allows a multiplicity of voices, allows a diversity of views, but doesn’t lead to a Balkanization of society and allows ways of finding common ground.” This is a good question, but it may miss the mark just slightly—as many perfectly reasonable questions sometimes do.

The ever-expanding range of social media—everything from Facebook to Twitter to Snapchat and beyond—has fundamentally changed our political, personal, and social discourse in ways we are still struggling to understand. Who, for example, had heard of “hashtag activism” a scant few years ago or would have foreseen the manner in which a political neophyte could leverage his love of “tweeting” into the highest elected office in our nation?

Politicians, reporters, businesspeople, celebrities, athletes, and others now race to provide their instantaneous reactions—we cannot possibly call it analysis—regarding every twitch in the fabric of our world. No event or statement—no matter how momentous or mundane—seems beyond comment, and YouTube personalities now rake in six and seven figure incomes for sharing (or perhaps oversharing) every aspect of their daily lives. Our planet’s population has become a global network of symbiotic exhibitionists and voyeurs, each dependent upon the other for the peculiar gratifications of either posing or peering. It is sometimes a wonder that anyone finds the time to brush their teeth between checking online, posting, and anxiously waiting for the “likes” to appear.

As a result, privacy is now nearly synonymous with invisibility, which has both individual and cultural consequences we can only begin to today fathom. We should, however, by now recognize the drawbacks inherent in engaging with social media in a manner that slices and dices individuals into ever-smaller subgroups based upon identities, interests, and political leanings. Although shared community can certainly result from, for example, finding Facebook “friends” who are just like you—and actively “unfriending” those who are not—this can easily slip into the Balkanization that concerns Mr. Obama. The myopic view of the world that results from communing exclusively with those who agree with everything you say produces the mental flabbiness and smug certitude that has helped to poison so many of our national conversations. Speaking only to those like ourselves surely separates us from one another—and impedes honest discussion.

However, this being acknowledged, I believe that Mr. Obama neglected to emphasize perhaps the greatest benefit of social media: the removal of mediators and filters that decide how information is transmitted—or whether it is transmitted at all. I am old enough to remember when a mere handful of major networks and newspapers were able to impose a virtual information hegemony upon our nation, which turned them into arbiters, gatekeepers, and kingmakers—and drastically narrowed the range of information and opinions available. Perhaps the most startling—or, for some, terrifying—aspect of last year’s Presidential election was that Donald Trump won without a single endorsement from a major news outlet and slogged on to victory while thumbing his nose at their repeated disparagements. This was, no matter how it might otherwise be spun, a stunning populist victory that would most certainly have been stopped in its tracks by the mainstream media in years past. It will be up to historians to determine the merits of Donald Trump’s presidency, but his success at the ballot box would have been impossible before the advent of social media.

Of course, right now a Trump opponent is rolling his or her eyes at his use—some would say manipulation—of his Twitter account, but it should be remembered that there would be no #MeToo moment or #BlackLivesMatter tidal wave revealing decades of pain and abuse were it not for the enormous power and reach of social media. In both of these instances, the entrenched establishment lost control of the narrative because millions of voices were suddenly able to speak and be heard. This is what most terrifies those in positions of previously unassailable power and influence: The average person can now wield a mighty sword to cut them down to size with just the tip of their finger tapping on a screen.

The nascent effort to combat “fake news” by empowering corporations and government agencies to ferret out information they deem unreliable—or perhaps embarrassing—seems to me to be nothing but a thinly veiled attempt by the establishment to reassert their control over what information is available in order to maintain their crumbling authority. Rumors, gossip, and pettiness have been baked into humanity since the dawn of civilization, but the official lies that have driven disastrous misadventures (we never did find those “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, did we?) are too numerous to enumerate and have caused vastly more damage to our nation and its people.

We are likely much better off with a wild and uncontrollable social media environment that asks uncomfortable questions and attacks complacent assumptions. If people are sometimes insulted and misinformation is occasionally spread, this is a small price to pay for the incredibly free and open discussion that is now possible, and we would be fools indeed to have this wrested away from us because some are more comfortable with the hollow silence that would soon follow.

The common ground we find after free-wheeling debate is a firmer foundation than the shaky consensus forced upon us by stilling voices of dissent. We must, of course, learn how to avoid ad hominem attacks and cruel invective as we discuss difficult and divisive issues, but the Balkanization that so concerns Mr. Obama also might be characterized as the messy and maddening freedom to speak truth to power and challenge a status quo that many find unacceptable. It is normal and healthy for citizens in a democracy to disagree, and those who yearn for the good old days when those who owned the television broadcast licenses or printing presses decided what we would be allowed to hear or say are simply hoping that taking away the voices of the many will protect the power of the few.

No matter how many times experts and insiders assure us that strict social media censorship will produce peace, harmony, or security, don’t believe it for a second. We are much better off with the sloppy cacophony of voices and viewpoints that we have right now, and those who are pushing for more curated conformity and crass control deserve nothing other than a good kick in the pants—on social media.

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We’re Living In A Weird, Weird “Weiner” World

I recently sat down and watched Weiner, a documentary about the improbable attempt by disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner to run for the office of Mayor of New York City in 2013.

Mr. Weiner’s problems with sending sexual text messages and crude selfies to women other than his wife Huma Abedin, a Hillary Clinton aide and confidante, followed him right into this foray at political redemption. The New York news media had a field day publishing articles during his failed campaign about his continuing problems with probity, as it turned out he was still sending lewd text messages and selfies. The documentary is, at its core, an excruciating examination of a deeply troubled narcissist, his sexual pathologies merely the most visible manifestation of his desperate and demented need for affirmation and attention.

We are, of course, now finding out that Anthony Weiner was not an aberration—he was a harbinger. The recent flood of sexual abuse scandals among elected officials has become a fixture of political discussions. Apparently many of those entrusted with the highest offices in our nation possess the social graces and sexual maturity of 13 year old boys, the now famous photo of future U.S. Senator Al Franken mugging for the camera while reaching for a sleeping woman’s breasts perhaps best encapsulating the puerile idiocy of behavior that runs the gamut from insulting to assaultive.

The question we need to ask as we confront the startling dimensions of the sexual abuse scandals enveloping our elected officials is just how did we end up with these exceedingly damaged individuals leading our country?

It may be possible that the public attention afforded by national electoral politics—which with the decline of political parties has become much more of a one man (or woman) show—has now become the drug of choice for those with unhealthy needs for self-aggrandizement that many times manifests as misconduct. Where once politicians were vetted by powerful party structures and bosses, which meant those who rose to the top often were loyal and dull—although there were still plenty of jerks to be found—we now see more and more candidates who chase the bright spotlight that follows the powers inherent in national elective office in just the way that an addict hunts for a fix. Rather than stolid back room operators, much of our current crop of leaders rises to the top thanks to an ability to capture all the attention of the electorate with their antics, which is perhaps not the most helpful skill when it comes to actually governing a country.

The operatic and outrageous nature of so much of our current national political discourse is obviously a function of a 24/7 news and social media cycle that craves controversy and disdains complexity. Judicious, measured, and cautious individuals are put at a disadvantage when flamboyant, shocking, and sometimes outright goofy comments and behavior are now the all-access pass to political fame and—amazingly enough—electoral success. Unfortunately, this deeply destructive outcome of 21st century communications technology is catnip for ambitious but troubled individuals who need the personal recognition the non-stop media attention provides in order to fill the gaping holes in their own damaged psyches.

This is the new reality of contemporary American politics that perhaps helps to explain why we now have a reality television star in the White House. However one feels about Donald Trump’s policies, it must be acknowledged that he is a master of 21st century political theater, and those who are still stunned by his upset victory last November must recognize that he is a genius at manipulating the full spectrum of the sprawling media environment. Even when the coverage is negative, it is all about him all the time—and this type of attention seems to be enough for a lot of others who are now running for (or currently occupying) national elective office.

Love or hate his tweets, bombastic comments, or arguments by insult, Donald Trump dominates our national discourse and robs his political opponents of the spotlight that he keeps firmly upon himself. He will lose political battles, but he will always win the war for media coverage, which provides him with the platform he needs to whip up the enthusiasms of his loyal base and reduce his enemies to sputtering and ineffectual rage. Given all this, as much as we may desperately wish for more leaders like George Washington to help us through these troubled and dangerous times, we are today far more likely to end up with elected officials who share much with Anthony Weiner—sad to say.

To be moderate and modest is to be a “loser” in a news and information landscape that rewards the sensational while shunning irksome rationality and details. The earnest and enlightened leaders waiting in the wings, carefully crafted position papers lined up inside their briefcases, are likely going to be in for a shock when they find themselves losing elections to shameless provocateurs who excel at tossing off entertaining put downs and pithy yet empty comments—and know just what to say to always keep the cameras pointing their way.

All of this may somehow work out well despite the wounds it inflicts upon our national dignity and world standing (though I still well remember wincing my way through the “blowjob years” of the Clinton administration) because the mythic common sense of the American voter will eventually drive the idiots from office—just as it did in the case of Anthony Weiner. This may be true, but it does little to repair the long-term damage done to the credibility of our country by fools and their foolishness.

We need sober and serious leadership to face the many challenges ahead, but our bizarre celebrity and scandal-obsessed media culture might saddle us with a long and dismal line of “Weiners” as we stumble through this difficult point in our nation’s history, which probably means yet more embarrassing scandals until we learn to stop confusing fame and flippancy with either virtue or competence.

Has Big Government Killed Compromise?

I was reading a book the other day that discussed the internecine religious conflict that roiled England during the reigns of Henry VIII, Mary I (“Bloody Mary”), and Elizabeth I. Protestants and Catholics, each convinced their own values and doctrinal interpretations were right and good, fought an unyielding battle for control and supremacy over both government and nation, and neither side was the least interested in even the most basic compromises. Each conflict was filled with hatred and every speech—it would be impossible to call them discussions—was colored by apocalyptic visions of the catastrophic outcomes that would certainly result were the beliefs of the opposition allowed to gain ascendancy. It was brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor, and region against region as each side scrambled to vanquish their blood enemies, who were, in point of fact, actually their fellow countrymen.

Does any of this sound familiar?

To say that many of the citizens of our nation seem to have a visceral and implacable dislike for one another is stating the obvious. Worse yet, because so many are convinced that those who hold differing beliefs are inherently immoral—or even just plain evil—the possibilities for thoughtful and reasonable conversations between individuals of good will seem fewer and fewer with each passing day. I am thankful that today we restrict our public burnings to social media, but the outcome remains the same: hearts hardened, hatreds stoked, and minds irreversibly closed.

I like to think that reasonable people can come to reasonable compromises regarding the many issues that divide our nation at the present time, but I am beginning to suspect that this may be impossible more often than I would like to believe for a reason some might find unbelievable: the fantastically expanded powers of American government itself.

The questions of governance that now so bedevil us are inextricably tied to foundational issues of family, faith, patriotism, and the balance between rights and responsibilities—each jostling against the other and further complicating the next. Thankfully we can still (most of the time) decide where to put a highway off-ramp. However, now that government has grown to control almost all of our daily activities, we are crashing headlong into the problems inherent in allowing legislators, judges, and bureaucrats—today’s kings and queens—to monitor and control so many deeply personal facets of our lives. Any government that holds absolute power—even if many believe this power is being used for the greater good—creates a lot of problems, and this is where the analogy to Tudor England really takes hold.

Four hundred or so years ago perfectly sane English men and women were willing to imprison, torture, and slaughter one another because government held absolute power over an aspect of their lives as fundamental as their form of worship. Not surprisingly, every conflict was fought to the death—or nearly so—because to lose any battle was to lose every bit of freedom to live according one’s values and choose one’s own life path. American government has now amplified this power to control individual human choice to a degree that perhaps even the Tudor royalty would have found objectionable—and we should not be surprised by the results.

Most of us want government to provide basic services that ensure our health and safety, maintain critical infrastructure, and defend our borders—although even these can be subject to intense debate regarding principles and practices. However, when we inject the nearly limitless powers that government can grant itself into every aspect of our personal behavior and interpersonal interactions, we should not be overly surprised at the divisive results.

Just as the Tudor royalty discovered saving souls and creating a heaven on earth backed by the power of the crown turned out to be a fairly unpopular and ugly business, so do our Washington “royalty’s” many decrees that punish attitudes deemed unacceptable to the elite cause political, cultural, and social discord that fragments our nation and stymies even the most reasonable political compromises. Our leadership could take a lesson from Elizabeth I, the last of the great Tudor monarchs. Her true genius, which transformed her broken and divided nation into a world power, was to abandon state-mandated orthodoxy and tolerate a range of inherently conflicting beliefs during her long and successful reign.

The lesson of human history is clear to any who cares to look: Nations typically flourish when they allow their people to believe as they please with only minimal common sense restraints on their behavior. If you want to understand the root cause of our inability to cooperate, you need only look inside the confines of Washington, D.C. for the answer. A great many Americans would be very pleased if those now occupying that dysfunctional zip code would just leave us alone and focus on delivering those basic services they have neglected while busying themselves with telling everyone how they should think and live.

We’re just fine with figuring it all out for ourselves, thank you. In fact, we’ll probably do a much better job at the fraction of the cost—and with a fraction of the anger. We folks in flyover country are a lot smarter and more sensible than the Washington crowd of social engineers and scolds, and we could probably teach the D.C. royalty a lesson or two—if they ever bothered to listen to what the peasants have to say.

The Tax Cut Gamble

Barring unforeseen circumstances, the Republican-led Congress will pass a significant tax cut. This prospect is—depending on your tax bracket, political ideology, and the state where you reside—a cause for either rejoicing or anger. Expert predictions about the effects of this tax cut bill, which will certainly reduce overall federal government revenues, should not be trusted. The long-term outcome will be determined by the unknowable responses of legislators and individuals to both its specific provisions and broad intent—which is to push broad reductions in the size and scope of government by cutting off access to funding.

Those who predict that this bill will increase the deficit and drive yet more federal debt have ample cause for concern. Previous cuts to federal taxes during the Reagan and Bush administrations produced exactly this outcome because there was no political will in Congress to reduce outlays to match available revenue. Washington simply borrowed to make up the difference, which has ballooned federal debt from roughly $1 trillion at the start of the Reagan administration to over $20 trillion today. If voters keep electing members of Congress who promise more despite less money in the coffers, the net result of this tax cut will be no reforms and continuing fiscal catastrophe at the federal level.

Any drop in federal revenues also impacts the states. Washington’s largesse is particularly important to local economies built around schools and healthcare (“Eds and Meds”), which are dependent on a variety of federal cash sources and could suffer if the D.C. money stops flowing. Moreover, given the many mechanisms that shift federal dollars into state economies—which run the gamut from research grants to highway construction money to public safety funding—the possibility that the spigot might be tightened is sending shivers down many a spine.

If states decide the easiest path forward is to raise state taxes in order to avoid making difficult fiscal choices, the effect of any federal tax relief will be lessened. A lack of political will to cut spending to match available revenue—this time on the state level—will diminish or eliminate any positive effect of the federal tax cut for many citizens.

This tax cut legislation is a significant risk for Republicans in Congress because—whether due to sheer economic ignorance or partisan political posturing—many opponents are describing this bill as a “tax cut for the wealthy”. They are absolutely correct that the wealthiest will enjoy most of the gains, but this is simply because the rich pay most of the federal taxes—about 45% of Americans, in fact, pay no net federal income taxes at all. It’s not a conspiracy against the poor, but it plays well with audiences who perhaps slept through ECON 101 in college, and you can be certain that those in government and elsewhere who are worried that shrinking tax revenues might reduce their influence and power will repeat this half-truth—loudly and endlessly.

This does not, however, mean that the Federal tax code is either sound or fair. There are far too many opportunities for imaginative accountants to find perfectly legal deductions and loopholes for wealthy individuals and corporations that enable them to avoid paying their fair share—and this needs to be remedied. These additional revenues can help to correct fiscal imbalances in critical federal safety net programs such as Social Security, which is in dire financial condition due to the flood of baby boomers rapidly bankrupting the system.

One flash point for many voters is the status of the deduction for SALT (State And Local Taxes) now enshrined in the federal tax code, which works out to be an indirect subsidy paid by everyone to those who live in high tax states such as New York and California. As financially painful as the loss or reduction of this deduction might be for some, it works out to be an immense windfall for the wealthiest, an egregiously disparate benefit offered to those who earn the most. In order to cushion the effect, changes could be phased in over a two year period, but this is a reform that must be made out of a sense of fairness for all. Sometimes “me-me-me” must be set aside for a greater societal good, and this might also force wasteful state and local governments to reconsider their excessively expensive policies and practices.

This tax reform is a gamble, but to continue as we are is a disastrous “sure thing”—more wasted tax dollars and more crushing government debt.

 

 

 

 

 

Tinkerbell Explains It All

I have a vague memory of being taken to a performance of Peter Pan when I was a child. Like almost everyone of a certain age, what sticks out the most is the scene where Tinkerbell is apparently dying, and we were exhorted to clap our hands to a near-insane pitch of enthusiasm until, accompanied by our childish squeals of delight, “Tink” revived—thanks to the sheer power of our collective belief.

The “Tinkerbell Effect” refers to the peculiar phenomenon of something seeming to exist only because we desperately wish to believe it is so—and I wonder whether this explains much about the country we live in today. We have chosen to believe in a host of lies and half-truths peddled by our financial, political, educational, and cultural elites—no matter how illogical and inexplicable they might be—and these falsehoods have survived because of our refusals to acknowledge any evidence they might not be true.

Therefore, we ignore increasingly urgent warnings regarding the dangers of our inflated stock markets and housing prices, educationally-deficient schools and colleges, overextended military, and staggering public debts. If we just clap our hands hard enough, we will be safe from any consequences of our greed, stupidity, hubris, and profligacy. Concerns that any—or all—of these problems are imperiling our nation’s future are regularly debunked by elected leaders and well-paid experts who soothingly assure us that all is well.

And we clap our hands like trained seals, content to believe the unbelievable. Stock market and housing bubbles are just fine. Diplomas based on content-free coursework guarantee our children are academically prepared to pursue their dreams. Endless wars have no effect on our military readiness. Functionally bankrupt governments will still be able to take care of our many needs and wants.

Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap

It is, of course, basic human nature to ignore bad news and actively distract ourselves with the trivial and sensational, so it makes perfect sense that vote-seeking politicians and smiling lobbyists can easily convince us the party will never end. Nonetheless, we need to peek up from our digital devices in order to discern the difference between what is truth and what is deception.

We will, unfortunately, need to find a way to solve our problems despite our empty pockets—and the refusal of so many to accept this fact. It is now (nearly) impossible to ignore our dire public sector fiscal problems, which have been compounded by several decades of resolutely refusing to live within our means. The expansive promises of politicians who claim to be able to protect us from all harm through the magic of ever-expanding government programs has become a self-destructive exercise in spending that has been sustained only by increasingly suspect guarantees security is just one more big tax increase away.

However, if you find any of these observations disturbing, upsetting, insulting, or contrary to your most cherished beliefs, that’s your prerogative. If you keep clapping, I’m certain everything will turn out just fine—somehow.

Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap.